Born in 1958, Ursula grew up in a housing project at the intersection of Baruch Dr. and Delancey St. on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. She and two siblings were raised by her single mother, a Panamanian immigrant. It was a tough neighborhood – drugs, gangs and violence were common. The building’s staircases smelled of urine – the door stoops served as beds for the homeless. Fortunately for Ursula, her mother would not allow those circumstances to dictate her life or that of her children.
Instead, she worked multiple jobs and ran a daycare out of her home. She instilled that same spirit and work ethic in her children. Importantly, she was adamant that her kids avoid drugs, that they not succumb to the pressure to sleep with the boys who pursued them. Ultimately, Ursula was able to attend Cathedral High School – a Catholic girl’s school. The school was challenging – not only academically but culturally. Ursula had never been outside of the Lower East Side.
Ursula met that challenge, discovering along the way that she was a whiz at math. She was a Junior when her counselor, Sister Rosemary, suggested that Ursula could become a nun, a nurse or a teacher. Ursula would have none of that. She discovered Barron’s book of colleges and researched the highest paying careers out of college. Chemical engineers made $24,000 per year, an enormous sum at the time.
That’s the career she pursued at Brooklyn Polytechnic. Almost immediately she learned that she hated chemical engineering. Once she discovered her love of mechanical engineering. she earned a Bachelor of Science in 1980. That summer, she obtained an internship at the Xerox Corporation. She went on to earn a Master’s of Science from Columbia University and became a full-time employee at Xerox.
Her career took an unexpected turn in 1989. A co-worker asked the session leader why the company was hiring “all of these ‘different type of people’ and women”. Ursula aggressively voiced her issues with the executive’s response. He called her to a private meeting to explain that her opinion wasn’t in question, but her style certainly was. That executive was Wayland Hicks, an executive vice-president. Ursula was further offended when he offered her a position as his executive assistant. What she assumed to be a clerical role was, in fact, a position which involved extensive exposure to the company’s C-suite.
By the turn of the century, Ursula had been the head of several departments. She was a creative thinker who brought an unconventional perspective to the table. Her willingness to embrace change, especially in the face of resistance, served her – and Xerox – well. Ursula was named President of Xerox’s Business Group Operations – the first female to ever hold the position. That group delivered 80% of total profits. In that role, she worked closely with then CEO Anne Mulcahey to implement a plan to streamline the company and return it to profitability.
Ursula went on to succeed Mulcahey as CEO when she went on to be Chairman of the board. As CEO, Ursula pulled the trigger on a major acquisition (Affiliated Computer Services) which transformed Xerox from a document company to one focused on technology and services. Eventually she also assumed the role of Chairman. Ursula was the first African-American woman to head a Fortune 500 corporation. She sits (or has sat) on several boards including American Express, the MIT Corporation and Boston Scientific. She was appointed by President Obama to head his STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) initiative. These results don’t ‘just happen’ – they are due to the fact that Ursula Burns is a fearless brand.
Fearless Brands transform ‘roadblocks’ into opportunities
It would be easy to assume that Ursula Burns had three strikes against her – poor, black, female. Obviously, those assumptions would be proven wrong. Instilled with encouragement and strength from her mother and a determination to create her own definition of success, she accomplished things most people couldn’t – or wouldn’t. Her mother constantly reminded her that “where you are doesn’t define who you are!”
She married Lloyd Bean, a Xerox scientist, in 1988. She had a daughter, Melissa, and a stepson, Malcolm. Driven at the office, she refused to work at home until the children had gone to sleep or before they woke. Her one regret is not having had more children. As she puts it “I ran out of time and my body couldn’t take it.” Another consideration is that Ursula Burns realizes that business is structurally made for men. Women often ask her how to best balance work and family. Not one man has ever asked that question.
Ursula Burns is the first person to say that dreams do come true, but it takes the help of others, a strong work ethic and the courage to ‘lean in’ to opportunities. She certainly received help along her journey. Beginning as a young girl, she had a work ethic instilled by her mother. Being a black woman from New York’s Lower East Side meant that very little intimidated Ursula. Her race and gender definitely came up but she says that the biggest challenge was her age because she earned roles at a younger age than most. She addressed those concerns the best way she knew how – hard work and powerful results.
There’s much to learn from this amazing woman – this fearless brand – Ursula Burns.
Where you start isn’t where you have to finish – There is likely no formula to legitimately calculate the chances that a poor, black, girl, from the Lower East Side becoming the CEO and Chairman of a Fortune 500 company. In the case of Ursula Burns the answer is 100%. Her formula is quite simple – find your passion, hone your skills, work hard, stay focused, move forward. Simple yes – easy no! The key is to start from the perspective that you don’t have to finish where you started.
If you have the chance to speak, do so – if you have an opinion, make it known – This advice was given to Burns by her greatest mentor, her mother. Doing so led to her greatest opportunity. Importantly, she learned that there is a right way to do so. She learned that “I was more convincing to myself and to the people who were listening when I actually said what I thought versus what I thought they wanted to hear me say!” Speak your mind, in an articulate, authentic manner – be authentic with your views.
Give more than you take – Quoting Ursula Burns once again “You must leave behind more than you take and, if you can do that, it will add up to a good life over time.” If you’d like greater insights to this philosophy, I urge you to read, or re-read, The Go-Giver.
Ursula Burns proves that with determination, conviction, and passion – coupled with some help and some luck – one can achieve stratospheric success. She refused to be defined by her surroundings. She accepted every bit of advice and guidance her mother offered. She built herself into a fearless brand and accomplished everything she chose to – more than most thought that she could. You can do the same if you incorporate her attributes into your life. Build your fearless brand. Achieve the improbable.